One speaks of a country’s cuisine with the reverence given the dead. So of Portugueese cooking I say, may it rest in peace. It has virtues, like simplicity. Fish, when grilled, is unadulterated. Salads are fresh and served with good olive oil and vinegar on the side. Desserts have flair. But when a restaurant boasts “traditional Portuguese cuisine,” it is an invitation to, as Dionne Warwick might say, 🎵walk on by, which we were fool-me-thrice slow learners. If one needs an explanation for why Italian cooking is ubiquitous in Lisbon, try the salted cod.
Breakfast at our fine hotel was more than adequate, but I longed for the German bread.
So enough with the complaints, already. Dining is a joy. Many beautifully lined, auto-free streets are staged with restaurant tables that run an unbroken column from intersection to cross-street. Notice that the pavement is a mosaic of off-white and dark gray stones, buffed glossy by the shuffling feet of tourists, sometimes finding more interest in their iPhones than in the remarkable life around them.
The tiled streets and sidewalks all over the city are crafted of these stones, replaced with the same artistry as done originally when construction requires that sections be disturbed, which we saw in stages over our 5-day visit. Walking on these broad sidewalks, some wider than the boulevards they line, is an uplifting experience.
Lisbon is a city of street musicians, and they are good. The one in the video above had the added advantage of being remarkably handsome and slim. One out of three songs from any musician is Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Melancholy sells.
In the area called “The Bairro Alto” a simple park overlooks the city from a hill to the north. The steep climb is commonly assisted by a form of funicular with larger wheels on the lower end than on the upper, allowing the floor to be flat as the climb is at a constant pitch.
To save rail cost, the ends of the lines have a single track and the center expands to two tracks, permitting a climbing car to pass a descending car, if the timing is right. It was not doubt of their smooth passing, but a long line, that persuaded us to walk the hill, beating the next lift. (Incidentally, a funicular is designed so that the weight of the descending car assists the rising car, so they always pass at the same location.)
In the park is a bust of the first newspaper man of Lisbon, less prominent than the full scale, skinny lad in bare feet hawking the news. Whether the sculptor sought to undermine the Citizen Kane of his day or elevate the entrepreneurial vigor of the boy, I shall never know, but I approve of their relative importance.
According to Rick Steves, the Bairro Alto is known for its raucous nightlife and the last honest meal, but we did not embrace the idea of returning by cab—traditional Portuguese, thrice burned. However, for those looking to see all of Lisbon, I’d recommend seeing the Bairro Alto at night; it lacks energy during the day.
With hours to kill we took a ferry across the channel to a neighboring peninsula southwest of the city. A bridge that strongly resembles the Golden Gate in San Francisco ties the two together, but the boat is fast and cheap. Here we shared a fine lunch of pan-fried sole. Even with the cost and hardship of sailing, the meal was a great value.
More about sidewalks In the neighborhood of our hotel, workmen had to remove and replace a sidewalk for reasons I could not discern without learning Portuguese.
The removed stones were of the same marble mosaic as one assumed were laid down by Romans 2000 years ago. We watched this work progress with the same horror that many must have been experienced when a fine Victorian house had its gingerbread torn from the windows and doors to be replaced by the once ubiquitous and now illegal asbestos siding, popular by people who valued their wallets more than their living space. We presumed the an uninterrupted line of artful sidewalk would be filled with concrete to avoid paying laborers a day’s salary. We were wrong.
When the time came to put in new stones, the work was done to the same standard as was used originally. This is why miles of walkway in Lisbon (and as we learned, other cities in Portugal) are graced with the pride of artisan labor. It is not then named as “The El Barffo Corporation’s Pedestrian Way” in a whorish way to trade civic pride for advertising income, as San Francisco has done with “AT&T Park,” now “Oracle Park.” Lisbon may not have the high wages and soaring property values that put the poor in their place, but instead has a dignity that is priceless.
The Lisbon Metro is worthy of a quick mention. The long trains arrive at the station at about every three minutes. If you miss a train, the wait is short. The trains do not dawdle. They pull into the station, the doors open, people get off and on quickly because the doors soon close and the cars race down the tracks—no bullshit. If you need to get somewhere, you know how long it will take.
As a result, traffic in Lisbon is light. Taxis are cheap, busses and trams are everywhere. Who needs a car? Large American cities could take a lesson here. A city’s commitment to public transportation is the only way to spare us hours of sitting in traffic.